Imani Hall, 10, was the first to arrive, a huge smile on her face and a pretty blue apron tied around her waist. It was a gift from her grandmother.
“Today’s our party!” she exclaimed, so excited to start on the final meal she and her classmates at Community Partnership School in North Philadelphia would be cooking for their families as the grand finale of the fall semester of My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy-cooking program.
“My grandmother is coming at 4:30,” she said. “Are we going to get it all done?”
If there was any doubt, it was soon put to rest as her classmates arrived. The excitement of throwing a party pumped these kids with adrenaline and focus as they divided into teams and quickly got to work on the menu, chosen from all the recipes they had learned: roasted chicken thighs and vegetables, and for dessert, oatmeal raisin bars.
One of the most rewarding parts of these cooking classes for the 70 volunteers teaching at 35 urban schools across the region is seeing how much the students learn over eight weeks.
“Knife skills had improved dramatically, and their ability to work as a team was impressive,” volunteer Susan Harris at Sacred Heart School in Camden wrote of their final class, where the kids were making lime-marinated beef tacos. “Their comfort and confidence in the kitchen has shown through,” she wrote.
So much progress had been made by the students at Loesche School in North Philadelphia that “peeling and chopping the veggies was easy and we were even able to begin cleaning up some of our dishes before dinner,” wrote volunteer Susan Munafo.
Doubling the recipes for the guests meant twice as much work; twice as many carrots, potatoes, and onions to peel and chop; plus a little extra math to be computed, as we needed twice the amount of each ingredient we measured for the recipes.
“It seemed as if we had wandered into the ‘Times 2’ lesson in math class. We had to keep double-checking our calculations,” wrote volunteer Peter Landry at Bayard Taylor school in North Philadelphia.
But these young cooks could have put on a clinic. “Jalynn, you are amazing,” said Denette Stetler, my cooking partner at CPS, praising Jalynn Artis, 11. “I have never seen anyone peel a bag of carrots that quickly.” What progress from a child who just weeks before had marveled to her classmates, “Can you believe we are actually cooking dinners by ourselves — not microwaving?”
Once everything was in the oven, the CPS students focused on what has been their favorite activity, laying cloths on the table, setting out plates, rolling the silverware in napkins, making “spa water” with lemon slices, and making little signs for the table. In the early weeks, the placards read, “Welcome Cooking Class is Fun!” and “Warning Do Not say Eww.”
For the family meal, no warning was needed; that lesson had been learned. They simply decorated table cards reading “Kids Table” “Parents Table” and “Welcome.”
The young cooks also made a little presentation as they wheeled out the beautiful dinner and dessert on a cart: “Welcome to cooking class,” started Z’nya Johnson, 11, as the girls lined up in front of the table. “We have a splendid meal for you,” continued Jalynn. “Roasted chicken and vegetables, and oatmeal raisin bars for dessert,” said Imani. “Enjoy!” said Ashiya Fletcher, 10. Then they all took a bow in unison before they served their guests.
“What’s that?” said Jalynn’s dad, teasing her and making a face as she dished the dinner onto his plate. “Isn’t that what you do when we serve dinner at home?”
“Daaad,” she whined.
But all the parents were duly impressed with the meal, all that had been learned, and the effect the classes had on the children.
“She always wants to help with chopping now,” said Ashiya’s mom, Siedah Merricks.
Imani made the cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner, and is often asking, “Nana, can I help?” reported her grandmother Brenda Brooks.
Tammy Johnson, mother of Z’nya, was most surprised her daughter liked stuffed cabbage. “I had no idea she would eat all these things. We are going to be using this cookbook,” she said, pointing to the book of the semester’s recipes.
Jalynn’s dad was impressed enough that he was going to reward his daughter by teaching her how to make a sweet potato dish that she loves, a recipe handed down by his grandmother.
Asked what was in the dish, he politely deferred, confirming what a gift this was for Jalynn. “Oh, I can’t tell you,” he said. “It’s a secret family recipe.”
Makes 24 bars
½ cup (8 tablespoons) butter, melted
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 banana (very ripe and mashed)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour (white, whole wheat white, or whole wheat)
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2 cups oatmeal (old fashioned, plain)
1 cup raisins
1. Heat oven to 350°F. In medium bowl, combine butter, sugar, and banana and mix until well blended.
2. Add the egg and vanilla and stir until well blended.
3. Meanwhile, in a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and oatmeal and mix well.
4. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until well blended.
5. Stir in the raisins and mix well.
6. Press the dough into the bottom of a greased 8-by-8-inch pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool and then cut into bars.